The hidden sun protection factor in foundation

Back in the 1970’s, aka the ‘golden age’ of sunbathing, sunscreen was an unknown word, and sun lotions were all about getting those copper toned bodies flaunted by the likes of Farrah Fawcett. In those days, fake tan was a streaky, hit-and-miss affair and instead, women slathered on everything from baby oil to branded lotions that promised to deliver that sought after golden glow. Even a little redness was considered on trend and a sign of devotion to sunbathing.

Those from an earlier generation who didn’t favour tanning taught their daughters that foundation would protect the skin on their face from burning; after all, a red face is never a good look. These savvy women knew instinctively that their makeup provided a certain amount of protection from the sun’s strongest rays, even if they weren’t exactly sure why. The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating wasn’t adopted by regulators until 1978, so how was it that makeup was able to provide this protection? The answer is simple, titanium dioxide.

The science of skincare made simple

Used in liquid foundation since the 1920’s, titanium dioxide is derived from a naturally-occurring mineral that in powdered form creates the whitest pigment available. Developed for use in artist’s paint at the start of the 20th century, its high levels of opacity and iridescence made it ideal for creating coverage and bringing luminosity to foundation. Low toxicity meant it could be used on the delicate facial area as sensitivity or allergic reactions to it are rare. From the early days of foundation production prestige brands, such as Estee Lauder, included it in their formula.

Titanium dioxide has what is known as a high refractive index which means it reflects away light and is where it gets its opacity from. This property meant it was noted as the ideal solution to protect against the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. When sunscreens were developed, it was therefore included as a key ingredient to provide protection. The sun protection factor was created at differing levels by increasing or decreasing the density of titanium dioxide. To put it simply, the greater the amount of titanium dioxide, the higher the SPF.


In addition to the inclusion of titanium dioxide, foundations have traditionally provided some protection from the sun’s rays by simply creating a barrier on the skin. Just as denser fabrics, such as cotton or linen, provide protection when worn in the sunshine, a layer of makeup provides coverage in a literal sense. With foundations being thicker and denser in their earlier incarnations, they were able to provide a protective layer on the skin’s surface.

Interestingly, while titanium dioxide is still used in many makeup formulations today, they are not always noted as having an SPF. As with the earlier foundations, its inclusion is to create coverage and opacity rather than UV protection. It can also be at levels lower than an SPF of 15 which the regulations don’t require to be registered. The reason for this is to protect consumers from claims that foundations offer greater protection than they actually do. In these sun conscious times, an SPF in a foundation can be a real draw, so it is important that they are correctly labelled. That said there is no doubt that they do offer some protection because of the inclusion of titanium dioxide.

Titanium vs Zinc

Of course, titanium dioxide is not the only ingredient used in either sunscreen or foundation to provide protection against the sun. Zinc oxide has been in use as a treatment for skin conditions for centuries. Like titanium, it is a white pigment with a high refractive index which gives it a high level of opacity. As a thick white paste, it had been in use to protect against skin burning for hundreds of years. However, its consistency and density meant this was restricted to key areas, usually the classic white stripes on the nose and under the eyes, and exposure to the blazing hot sun.

Zinc has the benefit of being able to prevent UVA rays from reaching the skin and is also used in sunscreens to provide the SPF. As broad spectrum sunscreens are now recommended, the most effective usually contain a combination of both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. However, when it comes to including them in makeup zinc oxide is not without its drawbacks. While both ingredients are micronized, which means they are reduced down to very small particles, zinc particles are slightly larger than titanium dioxide ones and can end up blocking pores.

Additionally, while titanium dioxide is brighter zinc’s density means it is has a greater opacity which makes it an excellent choice as an ingredient in concealer. However, it also means it is highly reflective and is one of the culprits when it comes to flashback, those ghostly white areas that appear on the face under flash photography. As a result, it is not ideal for use in foundations that are worn at night.

A good foundation

One thing to remember, whether you are using a foundation that has an SPF included or applying sunscreen to the face, it is important to cleanse and exfoliate the skin properly. griffin+row’s Cleanse skin cleanser helps remove dirt and makeup, while Exfoliate, a natural exfoliant cloth used 2 or 3 times a week, ensures dead skin cells are removed and reduces blocked pores. So, whether you’re a golden girl, or pale and interesting, your skin has a great foundation, to begin with!